"we're gonna do it anyway. We're gonna do it anyway. We're Gonna Do It Anyway! WE'RE GONNA DO IT ANYWAAAAAAAAY!"
“There are times when the food bank feels like wading through treacle. Today I feel like a bird set free.”
Labi Siffre's Something Inside so Strong has been one of my favourite songs for as long as I can remember. Its message of strength and resilience in the face of South Africa's horrendous Apartheid regime has a universal underlying theme that anyone can relate to: if people are doing you wrong, be strong and stay true to yourself. Its powerful lyrics, coupled with an instantly memorable melody and heart-wrenching chord sequence, never fail to move me.
I've directed performances of this song many times over the years (from huge choirs of children in arenas, to small choirs of pensioners in village halls), but it was a performance by forty volunteers and users of Sheffield's food banks and homeless projects that really brought home the power of music as a force for hope in the world.
A recent survey by the Food Foundation has highlighted a shameful consequence of a ruling class that puts more value in facilitating large-scale corporate and personal tax-evasion than providing for the most vulnerable in their society. It estimates that 4.7 million people aged over 15 in the UK are severely food-insecure, meaning they are too poor to afford enough food and sometimes go a whole day without eating. A further 3.7 million are classed as moderately food-insecure. Make no mistake, in an industrialised, capitalist, affluent and developed UK, in 2016, this is unacceptable, unforgivable.
But, out of this great adversity, amazing communities have built up around food banks as groups of volunteers rally round to do as much as they can to right these wrongs, and to make sure that people have enough to eat. These are places of great hardship and pain, but at the same time, great hope and friendship.
It was against this background that Lucy Bolster of The Vine Foodcycle in Sheffield, approached myself and Yo Tozer-Loft with an amazing idea. Why not use music, and in particular singing, to bring these people together. People from all across Sheffield. People who have been let down by society.
Working in five projects across Sheffield (The Cathedral Archer Project, St Marys Timebuilders, Gleadless Valley Food Bank, Parson Cross Food Bank, and The Vine Foodcycle) for eight weeks, we rehearsed carefully chosen repertoire with the aim of bringing the groups together for a joint performance at Sheffield Food Festival on Saturday, May 28th.
I have run a singing group for The Cathedral Archer Project since September 2015, and it's been one of the most amazing groups of people I've ever worked with. Lucy worked with The Vine and Parson Cross, starting both groups from scratch at the start of the project, and Yo worked with St Marys (where she'd already started a singing group) and Gleadless Valley, where, again, she had to start from scratch.
The repertoire was a mix of songs and shorter rounds/partner songs which were thematically linked by togetherness, hope and, of course, food. We picked songs that we felt had a good range for the ability of the singers, but that could also be easily enhanced with harmony parts by those who were confident enough! Alongside the Labi Siffre, we also sang With a Little Help From My Friends, Four White Horses, Mushy Peas (traditional African melody with Sheffield foody lyrics by Yo - complete with Hendersons references!) All I Want For Breakfast/Just a Cup of Tea/Give Me Some Fried Mushrooms, and Sing for Joy.
And so, as the final note of Something Inside So Strong rang out across Sheffield's Peace Gardens, countless people, having stopped to listen as they perused the overpriced, artisan food stalls, applauded, cheered and whooped for a choir of forty people who had only sung together as a group for the first time that morning. I held back some tears and tried to soak up what we'd achieved over the eight weeks of the project. A few days later, and all I can think is: if the three of us can do it here in Sheffield, surely anyone can do it anywhere. If you're even slightly inspired to go out and do something similar, do it. Start it tomorrow. Go out and make a difference. It wont be easy, but it will be great.
If you want to know more please email me on info(at)nicholasalexander(dot)org. For more information on food bank projects in sheffield, visit sheffieldfoodbank.org.uk, and if you want to know more about the incredible work of the Cathedral Archer Project, visit archerproject.org.uk,
Huge love and thanks to Yo and Lucy for their inspiration, drive, creativity and talent. They both did incredible work with their singing groups, and some fantastic leading on the day. Special thanks to Lucy, who was instrumental in securing funding and in sorting out A LOT of behind-the-scenes stuff (including the fabulous orange t-shirts) - the project couldn't have happened without her. Also, thank you to the volunteers and staff, at all five projects, for their invaluable support of the project, to Sam Galbraith for capturing so beautifully the energy of the day in her live drawings, and to our fabulous musicians, Paul and Jonathan who accompanied the performance.